I couldn’t tell if Rhea was still mad at me for scaring away her crush. She hadn’t spoken until we got home. Then, as were about to start up the steps to the front door, she grabbed my arm and suggested we detour to the backyard to play one of our old games. So, high on Twix bars and Tootsie Rolls, Rhea and I did the ‘tornado’ ‘til we were warm again, twirling in our Halloween costumes under the arm of the giant maple in our yard. She was a yellow Crayola crayon and I was the same thing I’d been the previous three years: black jeans, black long-sleeved turtleneck, blue spray-in hair, and a featureless white mask. I called it a “freak,” and I was quite the treat. After 10 seconds of whirling like spin-tops, we threw our bodies to the grass. We closed our eyes and let the world swim around us. After a minute, Rhea stood up and attempted to walk. She stumbled here and there, a drunk crayon colouring the yard.
“Whoa, mama,” she said. She tossed her black hair out of her face, then tucked it into the little hole below the crayon’s tip where her pink face peeked out. “So dizzy. Going to hurl.”
“Gross,” I replied from the ground.
A cold wind stirred around us. The arms of the maple loosened their remaining leaves with a bone-rattle shake, sending dark shapes dancing into a bruised sky. I reached for the candy bag at the base of the tree trunk. It was a dirty old pillowcase, off white and pregnant. I sat up cross-legged, spilling a few bags of Ruffles as I dragged the sack into my lap.
“Looks like you lucked out this year.” I tossed a shiny chip bag at Rhea, hitting her mid-crayon.
“Hey!” She bent over to pick it up. “Ooo—Ruffles!” She crayon-waddled over and handed me the tiny bag so I could open it for her.
“Don’t know how you like these things,” I said, handing her back the chips. “They’re stale before they leave the store, ya know.”
“It changes the taste. They’re just … better.” Rhea sat beside me and turned her pillow case upside down, spilling its contents onto the darkening grass. Her hands spread the goods thin, fingers smoothing a giant heap of rocket rolls, fizz strips, gumballs. She sorted the candy into small piles: chocolates, gums, caramels, sugar candies; then into sub-piles: bite-sized bars, full-sized, Nestlé brand, Cadbury. Her hands moved with the sure speed of a veteran trick-or-treater, tossing aside the odd can of club soda as they went.
“Listen, Rhea. About Jordy.” My voice sounded muted, as if underwater, from behind my mask.
“I know. It’s not your fault…Well, it is, but it doesn’t matter.”
“I was only doing what any brother would have done.”
“I know. Really. It’s fine.”
I waited for her to burst into an angry assault, and when she didn’t, I raised my head. “Yeah? You mean it?”
Rhea looked up from her work. “Braxton, it’s O.K. Besides, I don’t even really like him anymore.”
Though she couldn’t see it, my face had lifted in surprise. I couldn’t believe Rhea would give up that quickly on a boy, not after having allocated a dime a week of her allowance for the past two years to the bottom of the town fountain, in a wishful toss to secure a boyfriend. For an 11-year-old, she was abnormally invested in romance.
“I saw him pick his nose at Mrs. Rady’s,” she confessed. “He’s ultra-gross now.”
“He did it when she made us sign her stupid guestbook before she gave us candy,” Rhea said. “While Sarah Taylor was signing, Jordy took off one of his claws and stuck his finger in the nose hole of his wolf mask. It was big-time disgusting.”
I chuckled. “What did he do with it?”
“What—the snot?” she said.
“No…the wolf claw.” I grinned under my mask.
Rhea rolled her eyes and flicked my forearm. “I dunno. Ate it?”
I laughed at that, and then she laughed, and then I was coughing, deep and watery. Rhea looked at me and fell quiet. She drew her knees up to her body and wrapped her arms around them. The breeze came at us again, colder this time. I shivered in my damp clothes.
“How come you scared Jordy by showing him your face, but you won’t show me?” she said.
“How come?” She tore her eyes from me and went back to fidgeting with her candy.
I listened under the wind, hoping I wouldn’t hear our parent’s Volkswagen pulling into the driveway around front. We never had enough time. “He was calling you names. That’s why. I don’t know if addressing you as ‘Crayon Crud’ means he likes you, but he was being a bully.” I reached over and touched her legging-covered knee. “So I bullied back.”
And did I ever.
I had Jordy by the fuzzy chest of his wool sweater. I’ll never forget the boy’s eyes. They doubled in size in his grease-painted face when I lifted the chin of my mask, exposing the water-logged flesh of my face. I hadn’t gotten it any higher than my mouth before he broke my hold and tore off down South Street. He howled like a wolf cub split from its pack, and his clip-on tail wagged below his butt as he ran.
Rhea looked at me. She sat in a line of warm light spilling over the hedges from the neighbour’s back porch. It carved half her face out from the darkness around us. She really was growing up.
“You’re leaking again,” she said.
I brought my hand up to my jawline.
“No, here.” Rhea raised the corner of her pillowcase and dabbed at the liquid escaping my mask at the chin. The fabric was soft, though I hardly felt it. She set the linen down and returned to sorting her candy. She got faster every year.
“Braxton?” she said, after a minute.
“How did it feel when you drowned?” Rhea turned her eyes on me. The darkening sky behind her had lost its purple hue. It was all black now. I buried my hands in the grass, wet around me.
I didn’t tell her about the panic, or my first desperate lungful of water. I didn’t tell her about the pressure—all that weight on my chest—or how the river grew darker as it took me under, and even darker as it carried me toward the dam. I didn’t even tell her about the warmth that somehow stole the cold from my body when I finally gave in.
I grabbed another bag of Ruffles.
“Maybe when you’ve outgrown trick-or-treating,” I said.
I smiled under my mask, and opened her a bag of chips.
Chris Campeau is an Ottawa, Canada-based writer and lover of all things horror and strange. His fiction has appeared in Deadman’s Tome and Polar Borealis magazines, and his first children’s book, The Vampire Who Had No Fangs, is available via Amazon. www.chriscampeau.com